New US Defense Secretary Esper: Can a new face make a difference?

 New US Defense Secretary Esper: Can a new face make a difference?

After 204 days of vacancy, the Pentagon on the Potomac River finally ushered in a new owner. On July 23, the Senate of the United States Congress voted 90 in favor and 8 against the appointment of Mark Esper. Subsequently, Esper was sworn in as the 27th Secretary of Defense of the United States.

At the swearing-in ceremony, President Trump used the usual high-profile way of praising new high-ranking officials, saying that no one could do better than Esper, believing that he would be an excellent Defense Secretary. For Esper, it was his moment of glory.

West Point Gang VIPs

Since the establishment of the Department of Defense in 1947, the United States Secretary of Defense has implemented a civilian system, and active servicemen can not serve. Among the few veterans who have been appointed, most are high-ranking generals in the army. Far away are five-star general George Marshall, and recently Matisse is also a four-star Veteran General in the battlefield. Despite his success in the war, the new Esper is only a high school rank, which is hard to compare with the two mentioned above. Even the introduction of his personal home page on Wikipedia is very simple. It can be said that Espers military career is not impressive, and this experience alone is not enough to run the Ministry of Defense.

But Espere may not be a specialist, but he is an all-powerful man across the military, political, business and academic circles. After graduating from West Point Military Academy in 1986, Esper entered the Army 101 Airborne Division and then went to the Middle East to participate in the first Gulf War, winning the Bronze Star Medal for bravery in battle. After 10 years of service, Esper was transferred to the Army National Guard and the Reserve Force, and retired in 2007.

Esper never seems to stop thinking and exploring his career. As early as 1996, Esper was the office director of the Heritage Foundation, a well-known conservative think tank. After two years of policy research, Esper entered Congress to participate directly in legislation, serving as policy director of the Military Committee of the House of Representatives, as well as policy advisor and legislative director of former Defense Secretary, Senator Hagel. Excellent performance in Congress also gave Esper direct access to the Bush administration as assistant secretary of defense.

Since then, Esper has left his government position to test the private sector extensively. He has held senior leadership positions in the Aviation Industry Association, the Global Intellectual Property Center and the American Chamber of Commerce. He became Vice President of Raytheon, the second largest defense contractor in the United States, in government relations in 2010. Before becoming Secretary of the Army in 2017, Esper Poe has always been a recognized lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Such a cross-border experience not only enables Esper to develop experience and skills in dealing with various groups of people, but also, more importantly, a wide range of accumulated contacts can be used when needed. Despite the doubts raised about the impartiality of Espers links with the military industry, Esper did not seem to intend to cut Raytheon, but his careful operation in Washington enabled him to pass the appointment hearing of the Army Secretary.

Of course, the key step from the Army Secretary to the Defense Secretary is the help of students at West Point. It is said that David Eban, a close friend of Secretary of State Pompeo and Trump, who were also classmates of the 1986 West Point Military Academy, strongly recommended Esper as Minister of Defense. West Point Military Academy has always been famous for training high-level military personnel, but such a bright generation as 1986 is rare. Moreover, such a situation is not unique in the United States. The West Point Gang within the Trump Administration and the military is now growing quietly.

According to the authors incomplete statistics, in addition to Pompeo, Esper and non-current Uban, the alumni of the same term are Deputy Secretary of State Brian Bratto, Legal Adviser to the State Council, Ulrich Brecheeber, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, Joseph Martin, Commander of the Army National Guard, Daniel Hokanson, Congressman of Tennessee. Mark Green et al. Among them, Esper and Eban served together in the Army 101 Airborne Division. They were both members of Parliament and lobbied for Raytheon. Pompeo and Brattao worked for the aviation spare parts company founded by Blackpool. Esper, Pompeo, Blackpool and Brattao were four Harvard alumni, while Greene served as Esper. The inextricable ties between the former nominees of the Army Secretary not only propelled Esper into the cabinet, but also had an important impact on the Trump Administrations defense and security policy.

Esper not only has a matching resume, but also has the resources of alumni. He seems to be the perfect man in the eyes of all. At both appointment hearings, Esper mentioned his family at the outset, especially thanking his wife for her hard work, which was very emotional, showing the image of a family-oriented, grateful husband and father in front of the screen. In Espers 28-year marriage, there did not seem to be any gossip or misconduct. Esper is clearly a more decent and appropriate choice than Nahan, the former agent who resigned from the past domestic violence.

Macroenvironment and microclimate

Esper was born in Eunington, southwestern Pennsylvania. The 10,000-person city gave birth to two defence ministers. The other was General George Marshall, who was also Espers hero, who allegedly guided Esper to join the Army when he grew up.

When Esper became Army Secretary two years ago, he might have imagined becoming the new head of the Pentagon one day, but the speed at which his dream came true may have been beyond many peoples expectations. If his predecessor Matisse hadnt left without a crown, and if Shanahan had held on for a while, there would have been nothing for Esper for the time being.

Espers distinction is to some extent the result of the favourable weather, the favourable place and the favourable people. First of all, looking at the general environment, over the past six months, the power vacuum created by Matisse, an adult in Trumps government, has made both parties very uncomfortable. The rapid changes in the national security situation have left members of Congress on pins and needles. The cracks in the U.S. alliance system, the trial between the United States and Iraq on the brink of war, the intensification of strategic game between the United States and China and Russia, the protracted situation in Syria and the war in Afghanistan, the new contradiction between the United States and Turkey caused by the purchase of Russian weapons, and the development of Venezuela in the U.S. backyard all need to be calmly responded to. Yes, rather than allowing Trump to popularize whatever people around him want.

Before the nomination vote, Senate Majority Leader McConnell praised Espers qualifications and role, but most notably, he mentioned that the need to appoint a Defense Secretary was particularly urgent. Shanahan, a military lobbyist, was also expected, but his sudden resignation caught Congress by surprise, which became a booster for Congress to pass Espers appointment quickly and with high votes. Perhaps, as long as the next nominee doesnt look so annoying, hes likely to rise to the top.

Espers election was also driven by the microclimate of the Ministry of Defenses self-adjusting internal needs. When Matisse took office in early 2017, many people had high hopes that he would speak up to Trump and keep the U.S. Army from running out of control. Matisse has been diligent in the past two years, but his advice has often been ignored by Trump. As a result, the Ministry of National Defense has been implicated, falling into a disadvantage in the inter-departmental power and political struggle and marginalizing its role in important national security decision-making. In the past year alone, there have been three acting defense chiefs, a situation unprecedented in history, which shows to some extent that Trump does not attach importance to the Ministry of Defence.

As the new defense minister, Esper needs to face more than these problems. First of all, there are a large number of senior vacancies, including a deputy minister, four assistant defense ministers, ministers of the Army and Air Force, and naval legal advisers. The vacancy of personnel makes the operation of the Ministry of Defense confused to a certain extent. In addition, the Ministry of Defense has its own long-standing complaints that it will be difficult to cope with the challenges of the new era in the long run, especially it will be difficult to win the future war between China and Russia. From this point of view, the emergence of Esper played more of the role of firefighters.

From a human and social point of view, Esper is not only experienced and very old, but also has many personal characteristics. For example, he made friends with many of Trumps cabinet members and was easy to break into the government; he was calm, rational and dared to tell the truth; his style of action was fierce and prevalent, and his performance as army minister was outstanding. All these make him the most ideal candidate at this stage, and the situation can no longer be delayed.

How to get along with Trump

Since Trumps first day in office, the United States has been trying to understand Trumps style of behavior, but when they find that this style is very casual or even reckless, the question becomes: how to restrain Trump, who will restrain Trump?

At Espers appointment hearing, Democrats repeatedly asked: Are they closer to Matisse or Trump on the issue of allies? If asked to support policies that violate their own values, will they choose to resign?

Democratic Rep. Tim Kane said frankly that he wanted Esper to show honesty and principles and remain independent even in the most challenging circumstances. This is not the first time that Democrats have asked Trumps cabinet to do so. Matisse, Tillerson, McMaster, Kelly and others have been high expectations, but these people have been away for a long time. The rest are more like courtiers than advisers. Can a new face bring about change? The road ahead is still unknown, but many people on Capitol Hill still want to continue to throw stones and ask for directions.

Espers greatest uncertainty as defence secretary lies in how much influence he has on Trump. There is no more information on what kind of personal relationship Trump has with Esper. Esper, who knows a lot about people, knows Matisses lessons from the past. Its not easy to be outspoken about Trump. Trump, after all, wants loyalty, not bitter medicine. To put it further, even if Esper dared to speak directly, it would not have worked. Because, in the final analysis, Trump was the last person to make the decision, and Esper was not.

Esper said that during his tenure, he will devote himself to three areas of work: first, to develop more lethal military forces through increased readiness and modernization to curb the threat of war; second, to strengthen alliances and attract like-minded new partners; and third, to reform the Ministry of Defense. With the exception of the second item, the other two items are closely related to the Ministry of Defense itself, and do not involve the restraint of Trump. In fact, Esper was careful not to criticize Trump on the issue of alliance. He said he would clarify the importance of alliance to Trump, but he also believed that the success of collective security depended on countries taking their due share.

Therefore, Espers first priority after taking office should be to sort out the internal affairs, rather than restricting Trump. In the near future, Esper may carry out reforms within the Ministry of Defense, improve the management system, open source and reduce expenditure, strive to fill the vacancies as soon as possible, and focus on restoring the original position and influence of the Ministry of Defense. From this point of view, rather than expecting Esper to restrain Trump, the outside world should observe how he can indirectly exert influence by balancing hawkish forces in Trumps cabinet, such as Bolton and Pompeo. The relatively balanced development of internal forces can also reduce the number of unreliable suggestions sent to Trump.

Of course, on specific issues, Esper still needs to advise Trump, and sometimes there may be differences. For example, Esper said that the United States was not prepared or willing to fight with Iran, hoped to solve the problem through diplomatic channels, and believed that the revised or updated Iranian nuclear agreement could prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On the issue of Russia, Esper is also quite different from Trump. He believes that Russias interference in American elections is a real fact and a real threat. On these tough issues, there may be collisions between the two, but the effect of such collisions is hard to say.

Forces standing with Esper

On August 3, Esper chose the Asia-Pacific region to begin his first foreign visit to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. Esper talked about the importance of the Indo-Pacific region, saying that the trip was aimed at addressing the threat of strategic competition between China and Russia to the national and global interests of the United States, as well as the deployment of new land-based conventional medium-range missiles in Asia.

In Espers military career and career, China has always been a topic of concern. In recent years, Esper has been tirelessly discussing threats from China and Russia, based on the fact that since the end of the Cold War, the United States has maintained an absolute leading position in military strength, but this dominant position relative to China and Russia has been weakening. The main reason is that the United States has devoted too much energy to such low-intensity conflicts as the war on terrorism, while at the same time, China and Russia are narrowing the gap with the United States through large-scale military modernization. Esper has repeatedly said that the greatest challenge facing the United States in the future is strategic competition among major powers and even high-intensity conflict, which requires early preparation.

Esper represents the military perspective, focusing on longer-term threats. Unlike warmongers such as Bolton and Navarro, Esper advocated strategic competition with China, but did not blindly advocate war between the two countries. He still hoped to deal with differences diplomatically if possible. This is not a bad thing for the relationship between the two armies. But on the issue of China, there is no big difference between Esper and Trump, which determines that it is more difficult for him to say no to Trumps irrational decision-making.

However, in terms of the general trend, it is more likely that Esper and Pompeo and others are too close to each other, and they are on the same page with each other on the issue of China, thus becoming an important member of the stronghold of the Chinese forces. One persons power may not change much, but it may continue to deepen anti-China forces within the United States. Esper is not afraid, but the forces that stand with him need to be taken seriously.

After 40 years of development since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, it is time to tolerate a little misjudgment and bigotry. Espers participation obviously has little positive effect on easing tension. Nowadays, the voice of moderates in Trumps government towards China is becoming weaker and weaker, which inevitably becomes the mainstream. This is a reality that is difficult to change at this stage.

To be frank, there is no essential difference in the judgment of China-US relations between hardliners and moderates. Their differences lie only in what measures they take to restrict China. With the intensification of the Sino-US game, such differences will become more and more insignificant. Even if Trump is elected out of office in 2020, the power to contain the blockade against China will remain very strong, and it will be difficult for the Democratic Party to improve. Therefore, whether its Esper or someone else who serves as Secretary of Defense, Americas toughness towards China will not change. We still have to face the reality of the long-term strategic competition between China and the United States.

(The author is an assistant researcher at the American Institute of the Chinese Academy of International Studies)

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